AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - 86

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TECHNOLOGY

* The engine is simpler, more reliable,
more maintainable, higher efficiency.
* There's no notion of having the right
grade of fuel.
* Because the engine is simpler/lighter,
and wires are much easier to route than
fuel and exhaust, nontraditional designs
that improve performance and safety
become more feasible. For example, instead
of just one or two big engines, you could
have 10 small engines. An engine failure in
such a design is effectively a nonevent.
* It enables software (rather than hardware) control, which means updates and
improvements are easy and inexpensive to
deploy widely.
* Most importantly, it means that the
engine-and thus the aircraft-can enjoy
any improvements to the energy source.
So if you buy an electric airplane in year
one and in year six a lighter, cheaper, and
higher capacity battery technology is available, then your aircraft can suddenly have
longer range and more useful load.
TECHNOLOGY TRENDS

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With all of the above, why does fossil/liquid
fuel-based aviation continue to dominate?
Energy density.
It's the same reason that gasoline/diesel
cars continue to dominate automotive transportation. For all of the many advantages
of electric engines, having a dense power
source is critical, and today, liquid fuels provide that. This is changing more rapidly on
the ground than in the air, but the transition
in ground transportation is driving innovations that will benefit electric aviation.
First let me distinguish two kinds of
energy density, both of which are important: Volumetric density is a measure of
how much energy you can store per unit volume. Specific energy or gravimetric density
is a measure of how much energy you can
store per unit of mass (weight). Obviously,
for aviation, both space and weight are at a
premium, so you want both a high volumetric density and a high specific energy.
Batteries have improved dramatically
over the past 20 years, to the point that cars
with more than 300 miles of useful range
are economically viable. But aviation is an
energy-intensive endeavor. How do current
batteries stack up against liquid fuels?
86 | AOPA PILOT May 2021

Liquid fuels are about 58 times denser
on a weight basis, and 25 to 30 times denser
on a volumetric basis. Those are truly
daunting ratios. For electric aviation to
compete head-to-head with fossil/liquid
fuel-based aviation, it needs to make up a
deficit of almost 60 times. Game over? No.
Significantly more energy is wasted as heat
with liquid fuels than in an electric system.
Going electric means going from 30 to 50 percent efficiency to potentially over 90 percent.
It's not quite a doubling, but it's close. So, let's
say that the hurdle for electric aviation comes
down from roughly 60 times to roughly 30
times-it's still an order of magnitude.
Chemistries like lithium-sulfur and lithium-air are on the horizon and can increase
gravimetric density by approximately a factor of four to five. This alone would reduce
the hurdle from 30 times to about six. Six
times is not remotely adequate for long-haul
flights, for example, but it's also no longer a
full order-of-magnitude problem. And given
the opportunities to play with the aerodynamics of the aircraft themselves, fine-tune
L/D ratios without being constrained by
one or two big engines, and adjust operating
speeds for efficiency, it's more than sufficient
for shorter-range flights.
One advantage of fossil/liquid fuel-based
aviation is that you can turn around quickly
after a flight. While fast-charging technology exists for batteries today, it is still slower
than filling a tank with a liquid, and is harder
on the battery than a slower charging rate;
these are both areas of active research. There
is already one solution, though, to electric
" fast charging " : battery swapping, where
you keep a cache of fully charged batteries,
and when an airplane lands you remove the
depleted battery and replace it with a fully
charged one, which you then recharge at
your leisure. There is no technology challenge to this at all; rather, it presents a
logistical and economic challenge.
ECONOMIC TRENDS

Even if the technological challenges above
are addressed, electric aviation will be confined to niche applications unless it can
compete economically with fossil/liquid
fuel-based aviation.
It's the capital costs that are high today-
in particular, batteries are expensive. And


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AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021

Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Intro
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Cover1
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Cover2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - 2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - 3
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - 4
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - 5
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - 7
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Cover3
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Cover4
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